Last night, former Mayor Richard Riordan told the L.A. Weekly that he was about submit papers to start gathering signatures for a charter amendment that would completely overhaul how pensions are doled out to city employees. (The papers will be submitted Monday morning.)

The SEIU — which represents about 10,000 city employees — is already fighting back.

“Contrary to what Richard Riordan says, his pension plan wouldn't save L.A., it would wreck it,” union president Bob Schoonover said in a statement. “The plan is wrong-headed, lacks factual support and just plain mean.”

Campaign consultant Jonathan Wilcox, who's working with Riordan on the ballot measure, says the city spends a staggering $1.2 billion a year on pensions, a figure that continues to grown each year and threatens devour the entire general fund.

As Riordan explained to the Weekly's Patrick Range McDonald, his goal is to “prevent the city of Los Angeles from going bankrupt, and preventing the closing of our parks and severe damages to services. In short, it's to stop us from becoming a third-world city.”

The expectation is that unions will band together to fight the proposal, much as they did when City Council passed its exceedingly modest pension changes in September. The plan promised to save the city only, at most, $70 million over the next five years. Nevertheless, unions compared Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spearheaded the effort, to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Riordan's plan is much more ambitious than Villaraigosa's. It would enroll every new city employee in a 401k program similar to the ones that many employees of private companies belong to.

When asked by the Weekly which plan he thought was worse, Villaraigosa's or Riordan's, the SEIU's Schoonover replied, “Neither one is good. It's like, 'Do you want a stroke or a heart attack?'”

Schoonover also took issue with the notion that pension liabilities represent an existential threat to the city's solvency.

“We go through bumps in the road, and given, this is a really big bump,” he said. “But there's no reason to think that the pension system is in really big trouble, because it's not.”

That view could be a tough sell.

Riordan needs 254,998 signatures to get the charter amendment on the May ballot. Angelenos would then vote on it at the same time they vote on the runoff for the mayor's race. That would force the two leading mayoral candidates to weigh in on the pension issue – a tricky bit of timing, since they'll both want to secure the endorsement of the powerful public employee unions.

But recent pension overhauls have been popular — even in left-of-left California. Voters in both San Jose and San Diego passed pension-related ballot measures in June.

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